Rice is an amazingly versatile carbohydrate lending itself to the hottest curries or the sweetest desserts. But in most people's minds the latter use conjures up school day images of rice pudding in a congealed mass surrounded by a milky white substance with a dollop of jam in the middle.
Lending weight to this unattractive image is the fact that only 1% of all desserts eaten in the UK are rice puddings. But the unappealing image could not be further from the truth.
The number of desserts that can be made from rice are limitless and range from the famous French dessert of riz à l'impératrice - rice baked in milk, butter and sugar mixed with liqueur-soaked fruit - to the Indian dish, zarda.
Zarda is a well-known Kashmiri dessert made with basmati rice which is traditionally served at weddings. A thick paste called chaas is made using just under half a pound of sugar for every pound of rice - and the latter must be more than a year old and white-pearl in colour.
Of course, the type of rice used in any given dish is very important, and with 7,000 varieties to choose from, selecting the right one can be tricky. In fact, rices can be split, roughly, into two broad groups: Japonica - medium-sized, round grains which are sticky when cooked; and Indica - long-grain rice which produces a fluffy texture after cooking.
Long-grain white rice, of which basmati is an example, is deemed to be the most popular catering variety as it can be used for most recipes, both hot and cold. Wholegrain (brown) rice, also categorised as a long-grain rice, can be used in hot and cold dishes, too, but has a nuttier flavour and contains more minerals, vitamins and fibre than its white counterparts.
Basmati itself is regarded by many as being the supreme rice: pearl-white with a subtle but distinct aroma, it grows longer during cooking and tends to be used in hot and spicy dishes such as curries.
However, it is the various types of short-grain rice that come under the Japonica banner that are normally used for puddings, both in Western and Oriental cuisines. Their stickiness makes them particularly suitable for the types of desserts favoured in the Far East.
Choosing the right rice
Traditional British rice pudding uses American short-grain rice which is described as "ideal" by Nick Holland, pastry chef at the Royal Garden hotel, London, because when added to liquid and cooked it develops a "fluffy, creamy effect" and doesn't "explode" when boiled.
According to Holland, rice for this dish should always be cooked from cold, brought to the boil and simmered for 20 minutes - and should not be washed after cooking. To create the perfect rice pudding, the rice needs to be combined with a dairy-based liquid, egg yolk and cream, and the finished dish can be served with most sweet foods and/or be augmented with herbs.
British rice pudding should never be lumpy, but in the Far East it is the stickiness of the glutinous varieties of rice that makes them first choice for traditional desserts. For instance, in Malaysia, starchy black or white rice grains are favoured for the country's desserts because they bind together in a solid mass.
Not only do the grains differ in colour, but they also diverge in taste: Malaysian white rice, for instance, although similar to standard long grain, is slightly thicker and fairly bland in taste, whereas Malaysian black rice, while also similar in shape and size to long grain, possesses a toasted flavour.
A typical Malaysian rice dessert is wajid, which is made from black, glutinous rice, pandan leaf (which gives a fragrant smell but no taste), sugar, coconut and milk. The ingredients are steamed together and the dish is served with no garnish and usually eaten during the Muslim festive season of Han Raya.
In Japan, mochiko, a sweet rice also known locally as sticky rice, is used to make oshiruko - essentially, boiled rice served with a sweet, red bean sauce. The mochiko itself is made from grinding cooked, glutinous rice flour.
According to Jeffrey Quake, second chef at Nippon Kan, at Old Thorns, Liphook, Hampshire, oshiruko is a very time-consuming pudding to make, despite the fact that the rice takes only a few seconds to cook. The real labour comes in making the red bean sauce, which takes four hours to prepare and needs constant stirring. The sauce is made by adding water to the beans which are kept on the boil until they form a paste.
Back in Europe, Italian chef Mauro Bregoli, chef-proprietor of Old Manor House restaurant, Romsey, Hampshire, prefers to use the short-grain Italian arborio rice to make a traditional dish from his home country - torta di riso. "Arborio is easy to work," he explains. "It's more forgiving if you slightly overcook it." Torta di riso, he adds, is made up of milk, salt, eggs, finely chopped almonds, lemon peel, small cubes of candied citron and breadcrumbs. The rice is first boiled, then added to the other ingredients before being oven-baked.
For chefs looking for a different type of rice to experiment with in a dessert, there is the little-known French "red" rice, grown only in the Camargue, near Marseilles. It is short-grain, reddish in colour and, because of its limited production, has only one current supplier, a French company called Griotto.
What to combine with rice
There is only a limited amount of impact that can be achieved in a dish by using unusual types of rice grain, so chefs often rely on adding extra ingredients to a simply cooked rice dessert to give a touch of originality.
In Indonesia, freshly ground nutmeg, macadamia nuts and freshly grated coconut are featured in the country's popular rice-flour balls dessert, while in Europe rice and apricots, bananas or other fresh fruit are more common dessert combinations.
Coconut is also used in an Egyptian rice pudding, mehalabeya, together with sultanas - both ingredients being added to a mixture of ground rice (usually basmati), milk, starch and sugar, before being boiled for about 20 minutes.
Other ingredients that match well are cinnamon and nutmeg, with cardamom often being added, especially by European chefs, to give an Oriental or Indian feel to a dessert. Almonds, too, are a complementary ingredient used to a great extent in India.
However, there are certain fruits and herbs that do not combine well with rice. Raspberries, for instance, break up and bleed through the grains if added to a rice dessert too early in the cooking process. And peppery herbs, such as coriander, should be avoided because they detract from the sweetness of a sugar-based rice dessert.